Josephine Diebitsch Peary

Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center

Josephine Diebitsch Peary

Arctic exploration was not just a personal obsession for Robert Peary, but a family affair. In 1888 Peary married Josephine Diebitsch, the daughter of a linguist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Married life for the Pearys was hardly mundane; in June of 1891 Josephine accompanied her husband and the small crew of the Kite to northern Greenland. They wintered in McCormick Bay, approximately midway between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole. Josephine's experiences on this expedition prompted her to write My Arctic Journal. While many Arctic narratives stress the inhospitable and treacherous character of the North, Josephine's journal offers another picture:

Could the walls talk they would tell of some very pleasant hours spent there by the members of the North Greenland Expedition of 1891-92, and of many months of real solid comfort and happiness enjoyed by the woman who, when she left home and friends, was told to prepare to endure all kinds of hardships?

When her book was published in 1893 Josephine was again in the Far North with her husband where she gave birth to Marie Ahnighito Peary, fondly called the "The Snow Baby" by the press. Josephine recorded the story of her daughter's birth in the high Arctic in The Snow Baby, a true story with true pictures. In 1900, after several years away from the Arctic, Josephine and her young daughter again journeyed north to meet Peary at Fort Conger. When her vessel, the Windward, was damaged by an iceberg, Josephine, Marie, and their crew had to spend the winter in Greenland, 300 miles south of Robert Peary's camp. During that winter Josephine met Allakasingwah, Peary's pregnant Inuit lover. Yet, no matter how much Peary's infidelity must have pained her–in addition to his long absences–Josephine remained supportive of her husband.

After Peary returned from the Pole in 1909, and officially retired in 1911, he and Josephine continued to spend their summers with their two children, Marie and Robert Jr., on Eagle Island, which became more than just a summer home to them. As Robert Jr. said once, "We stay in Washington every winter, but we really live on Eagle Island." Josephine planted a garden and hundreds of trees on the island. Robert died in 1920 and Josephine survived him for several decades, ardently defending his claim to have reached the North Pole. Her personal accomplishments were recognized in 1955 by the National Geographic Society, which awarded her its highest honor, the Medal of Achievement. On December 19th of the same year, at the age of 92, Josephine died and was subsequently buried alongside her husband in Arlington National Cemetery.

More Information and Links

Josephine Peary's publications include My Arctic Journal (1893), and The Snowbaby (1901), co-authored by Marie Ahnighito Peary. There is some information about Josephine at the Arlington National Cemetery website and Josephine's Papers are with the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England.